More than any of the league’s other postseason awards, Most Improved Player is a construction of ambiguity. Player evaluation is already such an indefinite art that trying to measure the distance between two unknown benchmarks is alchemy to the greatest degree. In the past, several methods of shorthand have been settled on. The award has often been given to effective role-players who see a big jump in minutes, highlighted by a leap in points per game. It also has found its way into the hands of players who jump a talent tier, earning a first All-Star berth of making some other clearly defined adjustment to the quality component of their basketball identity.
By either method, Paul George has to be considered one of the favorites to win the award this season. Becoming an offensive centerpiece for the Pacers, in the absence of Danny Granger, George’s per game scoring average jumped by 5.3 points on the way to earning his first All-Star appearance. This season he has made some definable improvements, transforming his considerable talent into considerable production. His rebounding has been superb and his individual defense elite. There is no question that he is the central pillar of the Pacers’ future.
However, a closer examination reveals some holes in his Most Improved case. George’s eFG% this season is just 49.1%, roughly the same as Metta World Peace’s, and the lowest of his career. On the whole his scoring has been much less efficient this season, and those extra 5.3 points per game are the product of an extra 5.2 shot attempts per game. The real growth areas in George’s game have been in consistent confidence, patience, aggressiveness and leadership. When it comes to actual growth of offensive skill, I’m not sure were looking at something worth celebrating with an award. For the Pacers he has definitely become the “Most,” I’m just not sure about the “Improved.”
While George’s season has been puffed up and paraded around the internet, it has obscured the incredible actual improvement of his teammate Lance Stephenson. Chances are you’ve seen Stephenson only rarely this season, and possibly never before. Even if you’ve been watching him on a regular basis this season, it’s difficult to capture how far he’s come without watching some video of the full-speed train wreck that was his first two seasons. Before this season Stephenson had played 557 NBA minutes, shooting 36.6% from the field, turning the ball over on 22.4% of his possessions and making just 4 of 35 three-pointers. Those numbers are stomach churning but that don’t even begin to capture how painful it was to watch. Once a night he’d make a play that would take your breath away, only to be follow by five minutes of forced jumpers, charging fouls, behind-the-back passes whipped full steam at his teammates’ ankles, and some of the most intent defensive ball-watching you’ve ever seen.
The most bizarre part of the entire experience was the accompanying surplus of barking bravado and chest-pounding confidence. You may remember Stephenson from last year’s playoff series against the Heat, where he barely saw the floor but felt comfortable enough to walk towards the Heat bench during a timeout, making the choke sign. In retrospect, all of that buffoonery was clearly a defense mechanism, a drastic overcompensation. For the first time in his life Stephenson couldn’t just rely on his basketball skills to prove he belonged, and his personality swelled to convince himself, above all others, that he was truly an NBA player.
This season his play on the court is making that statement. He’s chopped nearly a third off his TO%, all the way down to a respectable 14.1%. He’s shooting 45.8% from the field and has made 62 of 187 three-pointers. He attacks the glass ferociously, frequently turning a defensive rebound into a one-man fast break. He makes smart off-the-ball cuts and knows where to find space in the defense for open jumpshots. His individual defense has been physical, challenging, and borderline terrific. The ball-watching breakdowns that were so common in his first two seasons have all but disappeared. His ability to get into the lane and create shots for himself and teammates continues to be nourishment for the offense-starved Pacers. What amazes more than anything, is that all of these developments happened at the same time. This isn’t a case of a role player carving out a niche by discovering how to deploy their one elite skill. Stephenson has become a full-fledged and entirely well-rounded NBA starter.
Last season the Pacers’ starting lineup at the end of the season was a juggernaut. George Hill – Paul George – Danny Granger – David West – Roy Hibbert were leaned on hard by Frank Vogel and they produced at tremendous levels. They outscored the opposition by an average of 14.1 points per 100 possessions, including a +20.2 mark in their six playoff games against the Heat. Granger’s injuries presented a huge hole at the beginning of the season but that same group, with Stephenson in Granger’s place, has outscored opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions this year. The only lineup in the league which has played at least 600 minutes and posted a better Net Rating this year is the Thunder’s starting five.
Paul George may have become the face of the franchise, but Lance Stephenson has become the barking, snarling glue that holds them together at both ends of the floor. The Pacers’ identity is painted with broad strokes of bulldog physicality and noone on the roster personifies that better than Stephenson. Paul George climbed a step this season, a difficult step and one which not many players arrive at. But below him on the pyramid Lance Stephenson is leaping steps two-at-a-time.